House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi won’t call for a primary challenger to take on Nevada Rep. Ruben Kihuen, despite saying the freshman Democrat should resign due to sexual harassment allegations.
“This is not about politics. That’s the last thing this is about,” Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday in response to questions about Kihuen, who has refused demands from party leaders to step down.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not respond to requests for comment on whether it would fund a primary challenger against Kihuen. The campaign arm has, however, removed Kihuen from its “frontline” program, which prioritizes funding for vulnerable members.
But beyond those steps, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have not maneuvered to force Kihuen out as they did with Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who resigned Tuesday after a concerted behind-the-scenes effort. That could change, Democratic aides say, if more allegations crop up. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is also divided on how to handle the issue.
Kihuen is accused of sexually harassing a campaign staffer during the 2016 election. The woman told BuzzFeed Kihuen repeatedly propositioned her romantically and touched her thighs twice without asking. Kihuen has previously denied the allegations; his office declined to comment on the record for this story.
Congressional leaders have struggled to articulate uniform parameters for addressing sexual harassment allegations within their ranks, even as a raft of accusations continue to shake up Capitol Hill.
“We have a responsibility to uphold the dignity of the House of Representatives,” Pelosi said Thursday when asked if the new standard is to call for resignation any time a member is accused of sexual harassment. “We want to protect the rights of the accused but we want to make sure that the victims have the opportunity they need to come forward.”
Pelosi didn’t call for Conyers — the longest serving member of the House and a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus — to resign until several days after the allegations first surfaced. Kihuen, meanwhile, was told to resign just hours after accusations were leveled against him.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) also faced questions Thursday about why he said Conyers should resign but not Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas, who used $84,000 in taxpayer funds to settle a sexual harassment claim with a staffer in 2014.
Ryan defended his decision, citing a letter from the Office of Congressional Ethics that said “there is not substantial reason” to believe Farenthold sexually harassed his former aide, Lauren Greene. The House Ethics Committee now wants to interview Greene about the accusations.
“We’ve got to figure out how do we make sure all of these claims are respected and honored, that there is a system of due process and that there are standards that are being met,” Ryan said.
But some lawmakers say that opens the door to a dangerous double standard that could be applied to members based on their party, popularity or even race. Congressional Black Caucus members were particularly vocal about what they saw as a double standard being applied in the Conyers case when they said white men including Farenthold, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore didn’t face the same pressure to step down. Ultimately Franken’s Democratic colleagues did pressure him to resign on Thursday after he faced sexual harassment allegations from seven women, with all but one of the incidents allegedly occurring before he was elected to the Senate in 2009.
“How do you say this particular alleged act of harassment is less harassing than another act? You can’t split those hairs,” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said in an interview. “Is Farenthold’s behavior like Kihuen and like my other colleague? If we are saying they’re both powerful accusations, why different standards of both judgment and penalty?”
Meanwhile, the CHC has struggled with whether to respond uniformly as a group or allow members to express their views individually. The CHC had a tense, hour-and-a-half long meeting on Monday night where members aired their gripes about the Kihuen response.
Some lawmakers were mad that CHC Chairwoman Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) and Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), chairman of House Democrats’ campaign arm, quickly called for Kihuen to resign after the allegations first came out.
Others questioned whether the DCCC knew about the allegations last year during the campaign. Kihuen has said that both Lujan and Pelosi were told about the allegations when they first surfaced in early 2016 yet continued funneling millions to his campaign.
Pelosi’s office and the DCCC have denied Kihuen’s accusations. BuzzFeed reported that the former aide who accused Kihuen of misconduct told a midlevel DCCC staffer who no longer works for the campaign committee but that staffer thought the woman didn’t want to escalate the situation.
Sources with knowledge of the CHC meeting said Lujan was asked what the DCCC knew about the allegations before last week and how it was addressed. One source said he attempted to explain but “not well.”
“I don’t know what I expected but at least I expected some chronology or something,” said one member who asked not to be named to speak more freely about the meeting.
DCCC spokeswoman Meredith Kelly denied that Lujan had any awareness of the accusations before they were first reported. “We were presented with these disturbing facts for the first time last week, and the chair immediately called for his resignation,” she said.
But some members said they’re skeptical that no one in the upper echelons of the DCCC didn’t know, even if Lujan was unaware.
“What doesn’t make sense is that in February 2016 the DCCC would have presumably known about all of this and from February 2016 until November 2016, there was millions of dollars for him, they begged us to give him money,” said Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas). “To come back almost two years later, you have to wonder why didn’t the DCCC stop it back then?”
Now even members who argued that Kihuen deserves due process said he should make an announcement about his future — whether he intends to run for reelection or not — soon.
“I think it starts getting more and more debilitating politically and personally for him as time goes on and he needs to make that call, the sooner the better,” Grijalva said.